American government statements on human rights in Central Asia tend to be pretty tepid, especially when they focus on countries necessary for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan.
A December 6 speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was not much different, though she did single out the region for attention as part of what she called wider backsliding on human rights in the former Soviet world.
I just met with a group of the Civil Society Solidarity Platform leaders from a number of member states. They talked to me about the growing challenges and dangers that they are facing, about new restrictions on human rights from governments, new pressures on journalists, new assaults on NGOs. And I urge all of us to pay attention to their concerns.
For example, in Belarus, the Government continues to systematically repress human rights, detain political prisoners, and intimidate journalists. In Ukraine, the elections in October were a step backwards for democracy, and we remain deeply concerned about the selective prosecution of opposition leaders. In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, there are examples of the restrictions of the freedom of expression online and offline as well as the freedom of religion. In the Caucasus, we see constraints on judicial independence, attacks on journalists, and elections that are not always free and fair.
Clinton was speaking at an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Dublin (all five Central Asian states are OSCE members). She didn’t get into details on Central Asia, so here’s a quick recap of recent events:
--In Tajikistan, authorities have been blocking websites critical of President Emomali Rakhmon and his military’s violent assault on the Gorno-Badakhshan region this summer.
Respublika has been suspended by the courts, but published last week under the name Azat (Freedom). Photo: EurasiaNet.org
A prominent Kazakh opposition party, Alga!, and outspoken media outlets are fighting a legal battle against a bid to shut them down. They say authorities are attempting to muzzle dissident voices in Kazakhstan.
The move to close Alga! -- whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term for allegedly inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December, which he denies -- has become bogged down in a legal paradox: Alga! has been arguing in court that it cannot be closed because it does not exist, since the authorities have for years refused to register it and make it legal. Alga!’s case has been adjourned to December 11.
One media outlet, the Stan TV Internet television station, has already been ordered to close by a court, which on December 4 declared its output “illegal,” Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz media watchdog reported.
The blackouts usually start this time of year. As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, Central Asia’s aging energy infrastructure struggles to keep up, leaving residents cold and in the dark.
When the region was managed by Moscow and was not divided by international borders, upstream, water-rich Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would produce hydropower in the summer, and receive gas from downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the winter. The five independent countries still trade, begrudgingly. But as they bicker, the system is falling apart.
Kazakhstan is again talking about withdrawing from the system altogether, Business New Europe reports, blaming Uzbekistan for deviously siphoning off electricity from the regional grid. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are experiencing vast shortages. From BNE:
Uzbekistan has introduced rolling electricity blackouts across the country, with the power turned off for one or two hours a day in Tashkent and until 6pm in other cities. Rural areas are receiving no electricity at all, and many towns have no heating. In addition to the electricity shortage, a lack of gasoline has resulted in mile-long queues at petrol stations, and cutbacks to public transport.
Kyrgyzstan is also struggling to supply its population with heat and electricity, which has caused the country to cut its electricity exports to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan cut electricity generation in September to conserve water in its reservoirs, resulting in a fall in electricity exports of over 1bn kWh to 1.5bn kWh.
The start of the heating season has put further pressure on Kyrgyzstan's energy sector, with gas imports from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan having been cut due to the debts run up by the struggling government.
Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”
Prosecutors have moved to silence some of the few dissenting voices left in Kazakhstan’s tightly controlled political arena, seeking to muffle media and opposition groups for allegedly calling for the overthrow of the state in the run-up to fatal violence in Zhanaozen last December.
A statement by the prosecutor’s office on November 21 accused two vocal opposition forces -- the unregistered Alga! party and the People’s Front organization, consisting of Alga! and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan -- of extremist actions and said it had filed a court case to ban them, along with a host of media outlets.
Alga! is led by Vladimir Kozlov, who on November 19 lost his appeal against a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence over the Zhanaozen unrest. Critics -- including international human rights organizations and the US government -- fear Kozlov’s imprisonment was designed to silence Kazakhstan’s battered opposition.
“The authorities are themselves radicalizing dissent, pushing it out of the legal field,” Amirzhan Kosanov, deputy leader of another -- still tolerated -- opposition party, OSDP Azat, commented on his Facebook page.
A court in Kazakhstan has rejected the appeal of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, who was jailed last month in a trial widely condemned as politicized.
Tengri News reports that Kozlov lost the November 19 appeal against his seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He had been found guilty of stoking unrest that left 15 dead last year in Zhanaozen, according to official figures, and plotting the overthrow of the state.
Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, has taken the political rap for violence which erupted on December 16 as Kazakhstan marked its 20th anniversary of independence. The authorities allege he urged violence by politicizing a protracted oil strike that Astana acknowledges was mishandled.
Ahead of his appeal state television aired a vitriolic program accusing Kozlov of being a manipulative criminal who allegedly channeled millions of dollars into Kazakhstan from Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive Kazakh oligarch who is on the run from British justice, in a bid to destabilize the state.
Kozlov and Ablyazov deny the accusations, and Kozlov has argued that he only engaged in legitimate political opposition.
“Money for blood: Their weapons are dirty games and provocations, their business is unrest and social conflicts.” It sounds like a trailer for an exciting new movie, but it is actually an advert for a state TV “documentary” in Kazakhstan sullying the names of political opponents of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The program, broadcast on Khabar TV on November 15 ahead of an appeal hearing by jailed opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, consists of a 20-minute diatribe against Kozlov and alleged accomplices, including fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov. They are portrayed as greedy criminals who stoked deadly unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December to make money.
The “documentary” -- which has echoes of the “Anatomy of a Protest” aired on Russian TV to slur Russia’s opposition -- is entitled “Amoral Alga!rhythm,” a play on words with the name of Kozlov’s unregistered political party, Alga!. The party is described as “a criminal group,” a secretive network that funneled money from Ablyazov into Kazakhstan to foment unrest.
As Kazakhstan, the breadbasket of Central Asia, struggles with a disastrous grain harvest this year due to drought, Astana has accused local officials of massaging statistics. It’s all reminiscent of the Soviet-era tradition of overstating production to meet central government plans.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Muslim Umiryayev said discrepancies had been revealed between satellite monitoring data on the harvest and preliminary figures supplied to the government by Kazakhstan’s three northern grain-growing regions: Kostanay, Akmola and North Kazakhstan.
He said there was a discrepancy of 1.4 million metric tons.
Umiryayev added that Astana was receiving desperate appeals from farmers being forced by local governments to overstate production. “This fact is confirmed by the presence of appeals reaching the minister’s blog from agricultural producers, in which they indicate that local government employees are in a number of cases asking them for false reports overstating productivity,” he said in comments carried by Bnews.kz.
In the Soviet Union, local officials often distorted economic output figures to Moscow in order to conceal poor production, as well as corruption. In the 1980s, for example, Kazakhstan’s neighbor Uzbekistan was rocked by scandal when Moscow accused Communist Party officials of skimming off billions by submitting distorted reports on cotton harvests.
As the anniversary of last December’s killing of 15 protestors in Zhanaozen approaches, a lobbying war is heating up in Washington that looks set to focus new attention on the Kazakhstan violence.
A group of Kazakhstani activists, with the support of a New York-based human rights watchdog, has been pushing for sanctions on officials they deem responsible for the shootings, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev on down. That’s upset one associate of the Nazarbayev administration, who has sent the rights group a letter threatening legal action.
The letter to the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) was penned by lawyers for Alexander Mirtchev, a businessman who chairs the Krull Corp. Krull describes itself as a “global strategic solutions provider” and is linked to Kazakhstan’s administration through Mirtchev’s position as an independent director of the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Mirtchev also sits on various think tanks in the US and UK that critics say are lobbying organizations.
Mirtchev’s lawyers take issue over allegations made by Kazakhstani civil society activists in an open letter HRF helped publish last month that Mirtchev is a “fixer” who was among people who “enriched themselves while serving a ruthless tyrant that ordered oil workers killed” in Zhanaozen, and “peddled the lie that Kazakhstan is the story of a ‘young democracy’… rather than a totalitarian police state.”